Virtual reality When I was little, playing video and computer games involved only two participants: me and the console (and perhaps a friend to play against, if we had enough controllers). The days of playing games in isolation are long gone though, as the line between virtual life and real life becomes increasingly blurred. Companies are now offering virtual rewards for real-life actions, and real-life rewards for virtual accomplishments. For example, Zynga, which owns popular Facebook games FarmVille, YoVille, and Mafia Wars, recently teamed up with 7-Eleven on a new promotion which rewards FarmVille farmers for shopping at local 7-Elevens. If you buy a 32-oz. Slurpee, for instance, you’re given a code redeemable for a water slide on your FarmVille farm. See what your neighbors think of that!

Similarly, smart phone applications like Foursquare, which use GPS technology to track where you are and “check in” at your favorite destinations, now have real-life perks. If you check in to a given location more times than anyone else in town, you are crowned “Mayor” of that establishment, and many businesses will provide you with freebies such as a cup of coffee or a jump ahead on the waitlist, in return for your loyalty.

This could be a win-win situation. With over 65 million consumers on FarmVille alone, it seems natural that businesses and marketers will follow us to the virtual world. Businesses are always looking for new direct response tactics to get us to try their product. I know when I’m deep into a game, I’ll try just about anything to move to the next level.

On the other hand, there’s something unsettling about paying real money for rewards that exist only in cyberspace.

One thing that is for certain is that as social gaming and smart phone technology grows increasingly intelligent, marketers will continue to experiment with new ways to reach out to us. Which would you prefer, a free FarmVille sheep, a pop-up ad, or piece of junk mail?

Contributed by Theresa and Elizabeth